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Failure Is Not Final

Luke 22:56-62 - A servant girl saw him [Peter] seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, "This man was with him [Jesus]." But he denied it. "Woman, I don't know him," he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, "You also are one of them." "Man, I am not!" Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, "Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter replied, "Man, I don't know what you're talking about!" Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Acts 15:36-40 - Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.

Did you make any New Year's resolutions at the beginning of this year? Have you broken them yet? Chances are that your diet and exercise resolves went out the window weeks ago. Maybe even your godly resolves, such as a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year program, have been broken as well, and you're discouraged because of your lack of discipline. Perhaps, however, you are struggling with a major failure in your life--a failure that is far more serious than a broken New Year's resolution. Have you failed the Lord in some way that you think is unforgivable? Are you guilt-ridden and demoralized as a result? Do you despair of ever living a life that is pleasing to God? Do you feel that there is no way you will ever be useful in future service for our Lord?

Well, take hope--failure is not final! Even serious failure in the Christian life does not have to be the point of no return. Failure can never be justified or condoned, but it can provide an opportunity for the love and grace of God to be magnified. The Lord knows that we are weak and prone to failure, and He graciously provides restoration for the repentant believer. (See Psalm 103:8-14.) God has a wonderful way of picking up the pieces and making something beautiful of a broken believer's life. There are many biblical examples where failure in the believer's life was not the end of effectiveness for God. Think of all that could be written about failure in the lives of Abraham and the other patriarchs, or of Moses, David, Elijah, Jonah and other heroes of the faith! However, because of space, we will concentrate on two believers from the New Testament: Peter and Mark.

Peter's Failure

One of the most familiar stories in the life of the apostle Peter is his denial of the Lord Jesus. We wonder how Peter could have done such a thing--but would we have been any more faithful in similar circumstances? On the night of the Last Supper Peter was so confident of his faith that he declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not." The Lord Jesus replied, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows tonight, you will deny three times that you know me." And Peter had rashly replied, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you."

Only a few hours later Jesus' prediction was fulfilled. Peter declared three times, with curses and oaths (Mark 14:71), that he didn't even know Jesus! Can you imagine Peter's guilt and remorse when suddenly the rooster crowed--and the Lord Jesus, now a captive, looked straight at him with that sorrowful look. As Peter went out from the courtyard and wept bitterly, he must have thought his failure was final. After all, he had not only denied being one of the Lord's friends, he had sworn that he didn't even know Him! When Jesus was led away to trial and crucifixion, Peter probably thought that any opportunity to express his grief and remorse and ask forgiveness from the Lord was gone forever.

Peter's Restoration

But Peter's failure was not final. In His grace, the Lord had great plans for Peter. At the restoration breakfast by the Sea of Galilee, Peter was a special object of Jesus' love. The Lord knew all about Peter's thoughts and feelings of guilt, and the Lord knew exactly how to tenderly restore Peter with a question-and-answer technique. Read the story in John 21. Our Lord's gentle restoration of Peter was certainly a fulfillment of that wonderful messianic passage in Isaiah 42:3. "A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish."

It has often been pointed out that Jesus used two different well-known Greek words for love when He asked Peter, "Do you love Me?" (John 21:15-17). The Greek word "phileo" refers to "tender affection," and the word "agapao" refers to love that involves "voluntary self-denial for the sake of the loved one." The Lord used "agapao" in His first and second questions to Peter, and "phileo" the third time. But Peter responded with "phileo" all three times. Most likely the Lord was speaking to Peter in Aramaic, which does not have parallel words and nuances for these two Greek words for "love." However, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John (who was present at the conversation), used these specific Greek words to precisely convey the essence of our Lord's restorative conversation with Peter.

After his recent experience of brash declaration and subsequent failure, Peter was probably too ashamed to profess "agapao" love (the strong love that involves willing self-sacrifice) for the Lord. But the Lord still had plans for him. As the perfect counselor, the Lord Jesus told Peter that his failure was not final. And the counsel was effective. Peter went on to be greatly used of God! His love for Christ led to sacrificial service throughout the remainder of his life--even to imprisonment and death as a faithful martyr. If the Lord forgave and restored Peter, will He not do the same for us? God is teaching us this wonderful lesson by recording the failure and restoration of Peter in His Word.

Mark's Failure

John Mark was not an apostle, but clearly he was associated with the apostles from the earliest days of Christianity. It is quite possible that the young man who ran away on the night of Jesus' arrest was Mark himself (Mark 14:51-52). The early believers met in the house owned by Mary, Mark's mother. Peter came to this home when he was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12). In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter refers to Mark as his son in the faith. When or where or whether Peter led Mark to faith in Christ is not known, but there was certainly a spiritual father/son relationship between Peter and Mark.

The apostle Barnabas was Mark's cousin (Colossians 4:10), and it was through Barnabas that Mark was introduced to the apostle Paul. Barnabas and Paul had come to Jerusalem from Antioch to bring a gift of relief to the church in Judea because of widespread famine (Acts 11:27-30). When Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch, Mark went with them. Thus he was in the right place at the right time when Paul and Barnabas started on their first missionary journey. Mark joined them and shared in their ministry on the island of Cyprus. But when the missionary team was ready to set out for the interior of Asia Minor, Mark left them and went home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Why?

We don't know for sure. Maybe he was homesick. Maybe he was physically sick with some kind of "Asian Flu"! Maybe he didn't like the rigors of missionary travel--after all, the up-coming missionary itinerary included crossing rugged, robber-infested mountains. Maybe he didn't like the subtle change in leadership from his cousin Barnabas to the younger man, Paul. Maybe Mark had some theological differences with Paul.

In any case, Mark defaulted on his commitment to the Lord and to the missionary team. As far as the apostle Paul was concerned, this failure disqualified Mark from going on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:38). Paul and Barnabas disagreed so strongly over Mark that the two veteran missionaries separated. Paul departed with Silas to Asia Minor while Barnabas took Mark with him to Cyprus. By the way, the fact that two missionary teams resulted from Mark's previous desertion does not justify or condone Mark's failure, but it does show that God can work through our failures to accomplish His purposes.

Mark's Restoration

The Bible doesn't tell us about the results of the ministry of Barnabas and Mark on the island of Cyprus, but Mark's subsequent activities prove that his failure was not final. The Lord did not set Mark aside from Christian service. About ten years later Paul was under house arrest in Rome. From that situation Paul wrote letters of instruction and encouragement to individuals and local churches, and we see that Mark was not only back in Paul's good graces, but was a valued member of Paul's team once again. Mark joined in with the other team members in Paul's personal greetings to Philemon (v24). Greetings from Mark are also included in Colossians 4:10, and Paul urged the church at Colossae to welcome Mark if he came to visit. Apparently Mark continued serving the Lord under Paul's direction when Paul was released from his house arrest in Rome. When Paul wrote his last letter during his second Roman imprisonment, Mark was commended once again. Paul wrote to Timothy, "Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11)! Mark's former failure was only a temporary setback in his walk of faith.

A further clue that Mark's failure was not final is the fact that God chose him to write one of the books of Holy Scripture, and the theme of the Gospel that Mark wrote is "Christ as the Perfect Servant." How wonderful that God particularly chose Mark to serve Him as the inspired writer of that great theme! Is any further proof needed that God is able to pick up the pieces in the life of a believer who has failed?

The fact that the apostle Paul did not irrevocably eliminate Mark from future Christian service with him is a valuable lesson for us. Some Christians continue to hold past failures against repentant fellow-believers, causing them to become extremely discouraged and demoralized. Other Christians subconsciously regard those who have failed as permanent "second class Christians" because of the past faults. But the failure of a brother or sister in Christ is not necessarily a sign of a permanent character flaw. Let's be careful not to blaspheme the character of God by refusing to forgive fellow-believers who are truly repentant--whom God is willing to forgive! (See Ephesians 4:32 and 1 John 1:9.) We need to be ready to forgive them and restore them to fellowship and useful service.

While certain kinds of failure will permanently affect a Christian's area and arena of service, God never writes off a believer--not in salvation and not for future service. Let's not be harder on our fellow-believers than God is! Restoration of a failed believer to useful service is an important function of spiritual fellow-believers. Paul writes, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently..." (Galatians 6:1). The Greek word for "restore" is the same word used elsewhere for "setting bones" or "mending nets"--a clear indication that the restored believer will be useful for service for Christ in the future!

God has preserved these incidents from the lives of Peter and Mark on the pages of Scripture, and this fact should be an encouragement to all of us. No Christian can claim a failure-free life. Discouragement and doubt can snowball when we fail. We wrongly jump to the conclusion that God is done with us. Let's be careful not to lower the character of God by refusing to believe that He will forgive our failures--no matter how bad they may have been. There may be consequences to forgiven failure, and many biblical examples demonstrate this truth. But failure is not final! The lives of Peter and Mark prove that nothing could be further from this truth! Failure is not final.
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