As simply worded as the Gospels often seem, the multidimensional Jesus we encounter in them is anything but simple. We can see this in the varied (we might even say extreme) ways Jesus extends mercy.
What likely comes to mind for most of us when we think of Jesus’s mercy are expressions of gentleness. We think of his lamb-like meekness during his unjust trial and his lamb-like sacrificial, substitutionary death on the cross to atone for all our sins. We might think of the Sermon on the Mount, which bursts with a many-faceted mercy (Matthew 5:2–12). Jesus invites us to put away anger (Matthew 5:21–26), to respond to evil with kindness (Matthew 5:38–42), and to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). We might think of the kind of kindness that drew all manner of diseased and disordered people to him for healing (Matthew 8:1–17) and all manner of sinners to him for forgiveness (Matthew 9:10–13).
These are each great mercies in Christ, but they are not the only expressions of his mercy. His mercy wasn’t always gentle. At times his mercy could be devastating. And it’s important we see this because, as the apostle Peter discovered, sometimes the mercy we most need from Jesus comes in a severe package.
Peter loved Jesus. Jesus knew that. But prior to Jesus’s trial and crucifixion, Peter believed he loved Jesus more than he loved his own life — in other words, more than he actually did. And so Jesus, to prepare Peter for his life’s calling (and even for his death), extended mercy to him — a kind of mercy Peter didn’t expect or recognize as mercy in the moment.
“Sometimes the mercy we most need from Jesus comes in a severe package.”
During his final Passover meal with the Twelve, Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. All responded with shock, and eleven with grief (Matthew 26:21–22). They also responded with pride, which was itself a revelation. The news moved each of them to question the others’ loyalty, and to assert himself as the greatest (Luke 22:23–24). Eleven desperately did not want to be that guy, and no one wanted the other guys to think he was that guy.
After mercifully ending that vain debate, Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you [you all, plural in Greek], that he might sift you [all] like wheat, but I have prayed for you [you, Peter, singular in Greek] that your faith may not fail. And when you [Peter] have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32).
Peter was stunned. Turned again? That implied he was going to turn from Jesus. He was incredulous. Even if everyone else turned away, he absolutely would not (Matthew 26:33). And he said so:
Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death. (Luke 22:33)
Jesus knew Peter was sincere, but self-deceived. Peter did not know how misplaced his self-confidence was. So, Jesus dropped the bomb: “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me” (Luke 22:34). To Peter, that just seemed impossible, especially after all they had been through together. So he swore, “I will not deny you,” and so did the others (Mark 14:31).
And then, in just a matter of hours, after Peter’s sincere vow of loyal love to the death, Jesus’s prophecy came to pass. All it took was a servant girl’s public accusation, and Peter heard himself say the one thing he swore he’d never say: “I do not know him” (Luke 22:57).
After two more denials, the rooster crowed, and Peter was left to face the inescapable, terrible truth: he didn’t love Jesus as he thought he did. When push came to shove, and his own skin might actually be on the line, he had been a coward, and sold out his Lord — the one he knew was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). It was the worst thing he’d ever done. Likely one of the worst things anyone had ever done. He had failed miserably, sinned immensely, and there was no taking it back.
That was true: it could not be taken back. But it could be redeemed. It could be worked for such good by the Holy Spirit that it would bear the fruit of a love stronger than death — the very love, in fact, that Peter thought he had before denying Jesus. Which is precisely what Jesus had in mind — what he had prayed for Peter.
Though it surely didn’t feel so in the moment, this devastating moment of failure proved to be an immense mercy to Peter. For he hadn’t known how weak he really was on his own — how susceptible he was to his sin nature. And so, as he would for the apostle Paul a few decades later, Jesus granted a satanic messenger to humble Peter, and help him see that only God’s grace is sufficient — that his power is most clearly seen and experienced in those who know their weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
“We all, in our unique ways, need to be devastated by the merciful love of Jesus.”
Peter would need this true, spiritual strength, what he would later call “the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11), for the future assignment Jesus would give him. Jesus had prayed that Peter’s faith would not ultimately fail. In the mercy of God, this failure would discipline Peter, not define him. He would turn again — and when he did, he would be better equipped to strengthen his fellow believers.
Peter’s restoration took place after another meal with Jesus, an early-morning, post-resurrection breakfast on a beach (John 21:15–19). Three times, Jesus asked him some form of this question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Though the questions pained Peter, still tender with grievous regret, all three times Peter affirmed his wholehearted love for Jesus. Three merciful times: one loving affirmation of his Lord for every terrible, unloving denial.
But not only did Jesus forgive Peter’s sins, and redeem his denials that morning; he also mercifully prophesied the death Peter would someday endure (John 21:18–19). How was that a mercy? Remember back to that terrible night when Peter passionately declared, “I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33)? In that moment, Jesus restored to Peter the honor of one day fulfilling his vow.
And lastly, Jesus restored Peter to his ministry calling. Peter had been deeply humbled; he was weaker, which made him stronger in the ways that mattered most. Peter had turned from Jesus but had now re-turned, and was received by Jesus with open arms. Peter, having experienced so profoundly the grace of Jesus, was now more prepared than ever to strengthen his brothers, to feed Jesus’s flock with the gospel of grace, and to do so in the strength God supplies (John 21:17). So, Jesus ended Peter’s restoration service with perhaps the most merciful words he could say to a loving disciple who had failed so dramatically: “Follow me” (John 21:19).
The Lord Will Restore You
In Peter’s whole experience — from the shame of his failures through the sweetness of his restoration — we see the mercy of Jesus in its wide range of expression. Peter was mercifully devastated and mercifully restored. It was not the experience of mercy he likely wanted, but it was the mercy he needed. And it was all unfathomably kind, even in its most devastating moments.
We all, in our unique ways, need to be so devastated by the merciful love of Jesus. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). Such discipline might even involve demonic “sifting,” like it did for the disciples. But the Lord knows what we need, and aims to give us what ultimately will fill us with his joy (John 15:11) and make us most fruitful (John 15:5).
Peter’s painful and humbling experience not only modeled this kind of mercy for us, but also wonderfully equipped him to pastor us through our experiences of the devastating mercy of Jesus. To anyone who has been similarly humbled, he promises in 1 Peter 5:10,
After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.