Recently I have been reading through Luke's gospel, and the other day I noticed a contrast that is made that I had never noticed before. That probably means that I'm reading more into the text than there actually should be, but even so, I figured it's worth sharing.
One of the reasons that Luke's gospel is interesting is in its structure and the way that Luke arranges the narrative. Luke 9:51 is a turning point in the book: "As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem." From that point on, Jesus' eyes are fixed on Jerusalem, where he would be arrested, tried, and crucified. For half the book, then, the story is pushing continuously toward Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus has a determined spirit. He is constantly moving forward to Jerusalem, and even though he continues to teach and heal, the story is directly mainly on what would happen at the cross. So from Luke 9:51 on, we see the incredible determination and resoluteness of Jesus as he heads to the cross.
Jesus isn't the only one who had this sense of resoluteness, however. We see the same attitude in his disciple Peter as well. After all, Peter had made some major sacrifices in choosing to follow Jesus. He had left behind his family, friends, and business at the call of Jesus. He brings this truth to the service in Luke 18:28, when he says to Jesus, "We have left all we had to follow you!" And in the upper room on the night before Jesus' crucifixion, Peter even says that he is ready to go to the cross with Jesus. In Luke 22:33, he boldly declares, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." At this point in Luke's narrative, Peter shares the same determination and unflinching steadfastness that Jesus has.
But not long after this, Jesus and Peter look much different in their readiness to go to the cross. Jesus is arrested and continues to demonstrate the resoluteness that characterizes his actions and words throughout Luke. When asked by the priests if he is the Son of God, he says simply, "You are right in saying I am" (Lk. 23:70). Then, when Pilate asks him if he is the king of the Jews, he replies, "Yes, it is as you say," (Lk. 23:3). A defense attorney would probably say that Jesus isn't doing a very good job in defending himself. He doesn't try to dodge around the charges that are presented against him. Instead, he faces the whole ordeal with apparent confidence. He continues to demonstrate great determination. He knows his mission, and he carries it out without turning aside to other possible paths. The Jesus whose eyes had been fixed on the cross since Luke 9:51 carries that cross through the streets, knowing that is why he had come.
Compare that with what happens with Peter. Less than 24 hours earlier, Peter had pronounced that he would go with Jesus even to death. But that's not what happens. Peter doesn't end up on the cross next to Jesus. Instead, he's found in the courtyard of the high priest, and when a little servant girl suspects that Peter is one of Jesus' disciples, he adamantly denies it. Not just once. Three times. The Peter in the courtyard looks a lot different from the Peter in the upper room.
So why the change? Why does Jesus maintain his determined spirit, but Peter forgets his promises and denies Jesus?
I think the answer to these questions comes down to Gethsemane. Between the upper room and the courtyard, Jesus and his disciples go to the Mount of Olives in Luke 22:39-46. And that's where the actions of Jesus and Peter are very different. Jesus spends the time in fervent, intense prayer to his Father. He asks that if it possible, he not need to go to the cross, but he still submits himself to the Father's will. His prayer is so intense that Luke even writes that "his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground." On the night before his resolve will be tested most strongly, Jesus spends significant time in prayer with the Father.
Peter's prayer in Gethsemane doesn't quite look like Jesus'. When they first get there, Jesus tells his disciples, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation." But it's late at night, and the disciples had had a long day of preparing for the Passover, so they were naturally tired. When Jesus goes to them after his prayer, he doesn't find them in prayer. He finds them sleeping, and he has to kick them awake and remind them to pray.
I wonder how Peter's story might have been different if he hadn't slept through Gethsemane. What if he had spent the time in focused prayer as Jesus had? Would he still have denied Jesus in the courtyard? Or would that time in prayer have given him the strength to move forward with the same resolve that Jesus has the next day?
I think we sometimes forget about the power that is available through prayer. It was Jesus' prayer that gave him the inner strength to carry through with the plan God had for him. That night of prayer was like the time it takes for a knight to put on his armor. Peter, on the other hand, neglected that time of prayer, and he was unprepared for the challenges that awaited him.
In his book Power Through Prayer, E.M. Bounds writes, "Prayer is one of the eminent characteristics of strong spiritual leadership. Men of mighty prayer are men of might and mold things. Their power with God has the conquering tread."
The good news for Peter is that his denial wasn't the end of the road, and it's interesting to me to look at how some of the "big" moments in his later ministry were accompanied by prayer. Acts 1:14 says that Peter and the other believers in Jerusalem "all joined together constantly in prayer." Not long after that, Pentecost happens, and Peter preaches a sermon that resulted in three thousand people coming to Christ. In Acts 3, Peter and John are going to the temple to pray when they bump into a crippled beggar, whom Peter then heals. In Acts 10, Peter is on the roof praying when God gives him a vision that leads to him going to Cornelius and sharing Christ with the first Gentile Christian. And in Acts 12, when Peter is miraculously brought out of prison, it is when the "church was earnestly praying to God for him."
I hope we don't neglect the centrality of prayer in our own lives. Whether you preach in a church, help with the youth group, or just strive to be a godly family member and friend, you need prayer. In prayer, we gain the strength to do what God has for us to do. Ignoring prayer is like trying to run a marathon without water. We won't get too far.
Believe me. I run marathons all the time.