Slip Sliding Away

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“Contrast” is a useful teaching tool. You can teach a child about “tall” and “short” by showing a picture of a tall person standing beside a short person. You can expose a lie by speaking the truth. The Bible is full of contrasts.

Here’s one, and it’s a startling one:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16 | TNIV)

He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” (Mark 14:71 | TNIV)

The startling thing is that the same man spoke both sentences, Peter! And before you think they are in wrong order, they aren’t. We could understand how a person could say, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about,” and then after a while; after getting to know Jesus, he would say, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But that’s not how it happened. Peter’s denial of Jesus came just a few months after his declaration of who Jesus is.

What happened in the interim? How could Peter go from a Christ-confessing believer to a man who would outright lie and deny his faith? There’s actually a third verse that answers the second question:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12 | TNIV)

The sad story of Peter’s denial of Jesus Christ is the sad story of backsliding, and it’s a sad story that teaches us two powerful lessons: anybody can backslide and it never happens all at once. The spoken and obvious denial of your faith that everybody can hear and see is always preceded an unspoken and internal denial of your faith in your heart.

How it started

Immediately after Peter made his ground-shaking, history-making confession of who Jesus Christ really is – the Messiah; the Savior – Jesus proceeded to tell His disciples how He was going to go about fulfilling His mission.  From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matthew 16:21 | TNIV)

That was a shocking thing for Jesus say, and it was an almost incomprehensible thing for His disciples to hear Him say. In the minds of the disciples, Jesus’ modus operandi didn’t make any sense at all; it went against everything they’d ever learned about the Messiah. It ran completely contrary to their expectations. And here is the very first indication of Peter’s backsliding, coming as it did right after his confession of faith:

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 | TNIV)

You have to admit that it takes some gall to speak to the Messiah like that! Can you imagine telling Jesus, in essence, that He’s wrong? Now, we know that Peter loved his Lord, and maybe you can sympathize with his emotion here. He didn’t want Jesus to suffer. Who in the world would want somebody they loved and admired to hurt? But your emotions aren’t always right. In fact, your emotions are usually always wrong and going by how you feel almost always results in trouble.

Peter’s emotions were certainly out of step with the reality of Christ’s mission. In a moment, Peter went from a staunch follower and loyal supporter of the Messiah to somebody who would go so far as to intimate that he – a mere follower – knew more than his divine Leader. He went from doing what Jesus told him to do to telling Jesus what he was going to do for Him.

And that really is the seed of backsliding; not trusting that the Lord knows more than you do. It’s thinking that you know better; that while you understand that God has a will and plan for everybody’s life, somehow you’re an exception; that your situation – whatever it may be, good or bad – is so unique that you and only you are able to work things out. That is such a common mistake that even the best of saints – the most well-intentioned ones – make it all the time. What we fail to understand is that thinking we know more than God knows is the first, big step in putting yourself at a distance from Jesus.

Nobody in the history of the world had made such a truthful and profound confession as Peter did. Peter’s confession of Christ as Savior was inspired. And so is yours. But confessing Christ is not the end; it’s the starting point of your new life. And life – all life – needs to grow and mature. When it doesn’t, you begin to fall back. Remember: When you think you’re standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.

Steps away from Christ

What happened to Peter after his confession and rebuke of Jesus and His Cross is found in Mark 14. It’s a fascinating chapter to read because it’s like watching a train wreck – the train wreck of Peter’s faith. Don’t forget, shunning God’s will – in the case of Peter, it was shunning the Cross of Christ – is the first step away from Christ. Shunning God’s will is a big deal because it’s willful disobedience. Nowhere in the Bible does it say God’s people are to understand God’s will, only that they live in obedience to it. The Cross didn’t make sense to Peter, but it wasn’t his place to understand it, only to accept it. The next step Peter took in his backsliding away from Christ is this:

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” (Mark 14:29 | TNIV)

That’s an impressive declaration. Or is it arrogance? What Peter is saying here reveals what he thought about Jesus, because he said it in response to something Jesus said:

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: ” ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” (Mark 14:27 | TNIV)

So Peter is basically telling Jesus, “Hey Lord, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m going to do!” That’s arrogance of the highest degree, especially when you consider the next step in Peter’s falling away:

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37, 38 | TNIV)

That’s actually a very frightening verse, especially in light of what Jesus told Peter just a few months earlier after Peter made his powerful confession:

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:17, 18 | TNIV)

Did you catch that? Jesus had changed Simon’s name to Peter after his confession, but now our Lord has gone back to calling Peter by his original name: Simon. Why wouldn’t he? At this point in his life, Peter isn’t moving ahead, he’s moving backwards – he’s reverting back to the way he was before he made his confession. It’s sad, really. Here was the guy who said he’d never fall away. Ever. But he couldn’t even stay awake long enough to pray.

The next step away from Jesus is found in verse 47:

Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. (Mark 14:47 | TNIV)

Mark doesn’t mention Peter’s name – he was his friend – but we know it was he who lopped of the ear of that poor schlub standing next to the high priest. Peter is moving farther and farther away from His Lord by trying to do things his own way. How far away? Verse 54 gives us a hint:

Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire. (Mark 14:54 | TNIV)

That’s right. He’s technically still “following” Jesus, just not real closely any more. And he’s finding comfort with the enemy, around his fire. That’s what happens when you follow Jesus from a distance; you get distracted by the things of the world; the “strange fires” all around you that feel so good.

Lessons from a backslider

The first and most obvious step in backsliding happens when we think we understand the genius of Christianity better than Jesus Christ does. The moment you rationalize some decision or some act that is contrary to God’s revealed will as being something good for you and the kingdom of God, you have begun to fall away. Following Jesus is an all-or-nothing proposition. He doesn’t really have much interest in your plans because your plans will fail. The way to success in living is doing it God’s way, not yours.

The second step is thinking you’re “all that and a bag of chips, too.” That’s what they say in the South, and it means simply this: When you start thinking you’re safe and that you’ll never, ever forsake Christ, you’re in deep trouble. Anybody who boasts about the security of his faith has already started to lose it.

The one who thinks he’s standing firm is the one who doesn’t feel the need to pray; he doesn’t have the energy to do it. Why should a guy like that waste time praying? After all, he’s got it all together, right? Wrong! A thousand times wrong! The man who is sure he is safe isn’t careful; he isn’t praying and he isn’t watching.

The third step in falling away from Jesus is the idea that you can make up by DOING for what you lack in BEING. Many Christians do this: They DO all kinds of acts of righteousness hoping that God will notice them and not the sorry state of their hearts. It is significant that the very last miracle Jesus performed during His earthly ministry was made necessary by the blundering zeal of an apostle who took matters in his own hands by DOING something for Jesus that was absolutely the wrong thing to do. And Jesus had to heal the man’s ear that Peter sliced off.

And the result of slip sliding away is that you will always – always – prefer the company of non-believers to that of believers. If you’re far from Jesus, you’re cold and your lonely. You will find a fire, and it won’t be a holy one. If you’d rather hang around non-Christians, you’d better ask yourself why. If you have no interest in going to church anymore, there’s a reason that likely has no thing to do with a long-winded pastor. When somebody who isn’t a believer comes up to and says something like, “I thought you were a Christian,” you’re in trouble.

The apostle Paul once wrote a letter to a church full of backsliders, and here’s what he said to them:

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 5:7 | TNIV)

Good question. It’s a question that every Christian should be asking himself from time to time. Is someone or something keeping you from obeying the truth and thus causing you to slip-slide away? Are you closer to Jesus today than you were a month ago? Or has your relationship with Him grown stale and cold? Nobody needs to stay in that condition. All it takes is a decision to move ahead; to follow Jesus. The Paul Simon’s lyrics don’t have to come to pass in your life:

Slip slidin’ away
Slip slidin’ away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away

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