A Visual Sermon: Jesus’ Look of Mercy

by | Feb 14, 2024 | Practical Living

Editor’s Note: What can we learn from when “The Lord looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61) after Peter’s betrayal? Bob Gonzales offers a biblical reflection on our Savior’s mercy for our edification and encouragement.

Permission to reprint this article has been granted from the author. It was originally posted online at this link.

Jesus has been brought before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. These Jewish leaders have secured false witnesses and charged Jesus with blasphemy. They proceed to beat him and spit on His face. During this time, Jesus is fully aware that His beloved disciple Peter has “followed at a distance” (Luke 22:54). He knows that Peter is among a group of spectators sitting in the courtyard (Luke 22:55). And when Jesus hears the rooster crow, He knows exactly what Peter has just done (Luke 22:59). Jesus turns completely around and, the text tells us, “The Lord looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). The verb translated “looked” does not refer to a scanning glance in which one tries to take in all the scenery. It refers instead to a piercing stare in which the subject fixes his gaze upon one particular object. It’s as if Jesus knew precisely Peter’s physical location. And without speaking a word, Jesus communicates a message to Peter with the look of His eyes.

Communicating with the Eyes

According to Scripture, it’s possible to communicate with the eye. In Proverbs 16:30, we read of an evil man who “winks his eye to plan dishonest things.” Later in Proverbs 30:17, we’re told of “the eye that mocks his father and scorns obedience to his mother.” Perhaps most instructive is Psalm 32:8 where God promises David, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with my eye.” The look of the eye can communicate. I believe this was especially true of the look which Jesus gave Peter. As J. C. Ryle remarks, “There was deep meaning in that look. It was a sermon which Peter never forgot.”1

What did Jesus seek to communicate to His beloved Peter? That’s a question I believe we’d all like to know. We’re conscious of our failures. We remember the unkind words we said to our spouse. We recall being impatient with our children. We’re reminded of our lack of devotion to the prayer closet. We call to mind missed opportunities to share the gospel. And being conscious of our many sins and failures, we may wonder, “How is the Lord looking at me?” If Jesus were bodily present among us and if He gazed intently at each one of us, what would His eyes communicate?”

Discerning Jesus’ Penetrating Gaze

To begin with, let us rule out what kind of look this was not:

Not Complete Surprise

Jesus had already predicted that Peter would do this very thing. In the upper room, Jesus had warned Peter, “I tell you Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me” (Luke 22:34). Therefore, Jesus was not taken unawares when He heard His beloved disciple disown Him. It was not a look of surprise.

Not Threatening Anger

Not once did Jesus do anything wrong to Peter. He never spoke evil of Peter. He never stole anything from Peter. He never committed an act of unkindness towards Peter. In fact, earlier that night Jesus had implored the soldiers not to arrest Peter (John 18:8). But in spite of all the good Jesus had shown towards Peter, Peter rewards Jesus by denying him three times. Such inequity and injustice would provoke deep feelings of bitterness in most of us. Yet there’s no indication that Christ’s look betrayed a fit of bitter anger. In fact, Peter later assures us in his First Epistle that Jesus never showed any bitter anger throughout his entire trial and crucifixion: “when He was reviled, [Jesus] did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23).

Not Utter Disgust

If we were in Christ’s shoes, we may have viewed Peter’s denial as no better than Judas’ betrayal. We probably would have concluded that Peter was a fake and hypocrite. And if we did not respond with bitter anger, we probably would have responded with utter disgust. “Peter, you low-down, good-for-nothing traitor.” This was not at all the response of Jesus towards Peter. According to the apostle John, Jesus never lost one ounce of affection for any of his true disciples (John 13:1): “when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Jesus’ look was neither a look of surprise, nor a look of anger, nor a look of utter disgust. And that leads us to ask what did Jesus say to Peter with His eyes?

A Look of Reminder

It was in response to Jesus’ look that Peter “remembered” Christ’s warning. Earlier, Jesus had warned Peter that Peter would deny him three times (Luke 22:33-34). Apparently, Jesus looked at Peter in such a way so as to remind him: “Peter, remember that I told you this would happen.”

A Look of Disappointment

“Disappointment” is not the same as “disgust.” “Disgust” refers to a feeling of aversion and repugnance. It’s what we feel when we read about a softball coach who systematically molests several little girls on his team. In contrast, “disappointment” is a feeling of dissatisfaction with someone who fails to meet our expectations. It’s what we feel when our child brings home an “F” on his report card. We don’t hate the child. On the contrary, we still love him. But we feel disappointed with him because we know he could have done better.

That’s how Jesus felt towards Peter. Peter had pledged supreme loyalty to Christ. He earlier claimed that he would “go with [Jesus], both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). In one sense, Jesus did not expect Peter to live up to this pledge (22:34). But in a more general sense, Jesus did expect Peter to live up to his pledge. Indeed, Jesus expects all of his disciples to live up to such a pledge: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).

This is what Jesus expects from us! However, because of remaining sin, there are times when we fail to manifest this commitment. There are times when we put our own safety and self-interests before the gospel. At such times, we may truly disappoint our Savior. I believe Jesus feels that disappointment. Sometimes He communicates that disappointment with words (see Revelation 2 & 3). But in the case of Peter, Jesus communicates that disappointment with the look of the eye.

That brings us to the third, and I believe most important message Jesus’ gaze communicated.

A Look of Mercy

Let me offer two reasons why I believe mercy was the primary message communicated through Jesus’ gaze:

The Love of a Savior

First, “mercy” is an aspect of the very kind of love that Jesus’ exercised towards his disciples to the end. “Having loved His own, Jesus loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Later that night, Jesus explained the nature of His love in these words: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). The love with which Jesus loved Peter was a redeeming love. Indeed, it was that very love that drove Jesus to the cross. Thus, it seems very likely that Jesus’ eyes would have assured Peter of His redeeming love. “Peter, even though you have denied me, I have not and will not stop loving you with redeeming love.” And at the heart of such love, there is abundant mercy.

The Root of Repentance

Second, it was a look of mercy because Jesus knew this was necessary to bring about the repentance Jesus predicted of Peter. As one commentator notes, “The cock’s crowing and the Lord’s passage through the court and his look at Peter were so timed by divine providence as to effect the saving result in Peter’s soul.”2 Earlier, Jesus not only predicted Peter’s denial, but He also prayed for and predicted Peter’s repentance: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:21–32).

We know that Peter did repent. Verse 62 records Peter’s repentance: “So Peter went out and wept bitterly.” The term translated “wept” refers to loud wailing. The term translated “bitterly” underscores the intensity of Peter’s grief. It was not a superficial sorrow. It wasn’t shallow sentimentalism. Peter had been “pierced to the heart,” and an explosion of grief and sorrow burst from his soul and flowed down his cheeks in a flood of tears. This was a godly sorrow that produces true repentance.

What was it that moved Peter’s heart to repent? Certainly, Jesus’ look of disappointment must have made Peter deeply aware of his sin. But Jesus used another means to being Peter to repentance. According to Scripture, the tree of repentance springs of two roots: (1) from a genuine acknowledgement of our sin, and (2) from a genuine apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ. Jesus’ knew that if Peter were genuinely to repent, he would not only need to become aware of his sin, but Peter would also need to be reminded of God’s mercy and disposition to forgive. Thus, Jesus did not merely seek to make Peter aware of his sin, but He also sought to make him aware of God’s mercy.

Perhaps, as Peter looked into Christ’s eyes, he remembered the words Jesus had earlier spoke to him on the subject of forgiveness: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21–22). What Jesus spoke to Peter then, he now preached to Peter with His eyes. In the words of the Scottish pastor James Stalker,

[Jesus’ look] was a rescuing look…. There was pain, no doubt, and there was immeasurable disappointment. But deeper than these … there was the Savior’s instinct, that instinct which made Him reach out His hand and grasp Peter when he was sinking in the sea. With this same instinct He grasped him now.

In that look of an instant Peter saw forgiveness and unutterable love…. [He saw] such a revelation of the heart of Christ as he had never yet known. He saw now what kind of Master he had denied; and it broke his heart…. It is not our sin that makes us weep; it is when we see what kind of Savior we have sinned against. [Peter] wept bitterly; not to wash out his sin, but because even already he knew it had been washed out.3

As Peter looked into Jesus’ eyes, he grasped the mercy of God. I believe that it was Jesus’ look of mercy that moved Peter to repentance and kept him from the suicidal despair of Judas Iscariot.4

Applying Jesus’ Rescuing Gaze

What does Jesus’ look of mercy say to us today?

Ready to Forgive

Jesus’ look of mercy reminds us of the purpose for which He came into the world. The apostle John tells us, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). Jesus Himself said, “I have come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). His very purpose for coming into the world was to show mercy to sinners! Of course, the Day is coming when Jesus shall judge the world. But that Day is not now! Today is the day of salvation!

Whatever evil thoughts you’ve entertained, whatever filthy words you’ve uttered, whatever wicked deeds you’ve committed—you can be sure of this: Jesus is willing to save you! What Jesus did for Peter is what He would like to do for you today. He stands ready to forgive you.

None Is Lost

Jesus’ look of mercy reminds us He never gives up on His failing disciples. Satan knew Peter’s weakness and wanted to ruin Peter. But Satan was no match for Jesus! Jesus prayed for Peter that his “faith should not fail.” And Peter turned back his Savior.

Jesus knows us as well as He knew Peter. He knows our weaknesses. He’s fully aware of our besetting sins. They don’t take Him by surprise. And Jesus knows we’re no match for Satan. He knows that left to ourselves, we’d perish in our sins. But Jesus has died on the cross to cancel out our sins. And He ever lives to make intercession for us as He did for Peter—that our faith might not fail. When we do sin, Jesus prays that we might “turn back”—that we might repent of our sin and to look to Him again for mercy.

And Jesus’ prayers are effectual! “Father,” He prayed, “those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost.” And He went on to pray, “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me” (John 17:12, 24). Oh, what a Savior!

Debtors to Mercy

Jesus’ look of mercy reminds us that forgiveness is a powerful motivation for sanctification and for service. The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 130:4, “There is forgiveness with the Lord that He may be feared.” God knows how to motivate His children. When we look into the eyes of our precious Savior and see mercy, we’re not moved to say, “Let us sin that grace may abound!” On the contrary, we say with the apostle Paul, “The love of Christ constrains me to live not for myself but for Him who died for me and rose again” (2 Cor 5:14). We fall on the ground and say with the hymnwriter,

But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away, ‘tis all that I can do.

Jesus’ look of mercy reminds us of His saving purpose. Second, it reminds us that He never gives up on His true disciples. Third, Jesus’ look of mercy reminds us that forgiveness is a powerful motivation for sanctification and for service. May God be pleased to write these great truths upon the tablet of our heart!

Many are troubled by the destructive ways people interact on social media. And the issue isn’t merely non-Christians fighting with each other over politics. Many professing Christians have contributed to this sad situation. While most of us admit that there is a significant problem with the discourse on social media, few of us think of ourselves as being a major part of the problem.

I would like to offer four principles from Scripture to help us honor the Lord both in our public interactions and in our heart attitudes.

1. Love Assumes the Best

“(Love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).

We are often inclined to give the benefit of the doubt (and our “likes”) to those from our own tribe. On the other hand, we tend to believe the worst about those from tribes that we regard as hostile. We are inclined to interpret their statements in the worst possible light and may post snarky comments about their posts.

For example, we should be able to agree with these two statements:

  1. Some people are called by God to stay in hard marriages.
  2. There are situations in which an abused spouse has the right to flee to safety.

Yet, if each statement were to be posted on social media, the reaction of some to statement 1 might include accusations that the author idolatrously cares more about marriage than abuse victims. Responses to the second statement might accuse the author of encouraging people to divorce their spouses for unbiblical reasons. Can we agree that it is important to protect both God’s institution of marriage and the safety of those who are at risk? We might even be able to have a fruitful discussion about how to apply these two principles to challenging situations wisely.

Another example would be differing reactions to the Covid epidemic. Churches that followed government mandates to meet online or to wear masks were accused of compromising as they bowed the knee to Caesar. And churches that continued to meet were accused of killing people by spreading the virus. Could we give one another the benefit of the doubt while charitably assuming that each church is trying its best to act wisely and honor the Lord in a very confusing and difficult situation?

2. Stop Judging

“Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12)

A sad truth about human nature is that we enjoy judging others. A corresponding truth is that we absolutely hate being judged. This is a toxic mix on social media where people delight in pronouncing judgment upon their opponents. The goal of judgment is not to gently restore those who may be in error as we walk in the Spirit and keep watch on ourselves (Gal. 6:1). Instead, the aim seems to be to destroy (or cancel) our enemies. Sometimes entire classes of people are judged for the sins of a few bad representatives. I also have noticed that the harshest judgments seem to come upon those who have recently switched tribes.

Many use pejorative names (racist, misogynist, bully, liberal, woke, snowflake, etc.) with little concern that we may be unfairly misrepresenting others and damaging their reputation (Matt. 5:21-22). This is compounded by the impersonal nature of social media. A person isolated with their device may type hurtful things that they would never say to someone’s face. Don’t write something on social media that you wouldn’t say to their face with their spouse and mother nearby.

This does not mean that we can’t disagree with others publicly. Paul confronted Peter publicly when he was publicly wrong (Gal. 2:11-21). But Paul didn’t resort to personal attacks.

3. Be Slow to Speak

“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19).

Many have had the experience of reading something inflammatory on social media, which leads to an overwhelming desire to respond in kind. Slow down! It is rarely urgent that you reply immediately.

Many posts on social media are “red meat,” which will be devoured by their tribe but will do nothing to persuade those of differing viewpoints. Are we speaking accurately and fairly? Does our attitude reflect the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24) or the divisive deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21)? Will this post honor the Lord and edify others (Eph. 4:29)? Show your potential post to godly friends who may help you to express yourself more graciously (Prov. 11:14). Elizabeth Elliot wisely reminds us, “Never pass up the opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”

4. Be Humble

“For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think…” (Rom. 12:3a). “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 26:12).

Pride on social media can be subtle. When we put others down, we may implicitly signal our own virtue and superiority. “Unlike you, we care about those who suffer oppression.”

Another form of pride is a refusal to ever admit that we may be mistaken or imbalanced in our views. One sad aspect of the Covid crisis was how people on both sides would speak with absolute authority without acknowledgment that they could be wrong. It would have been better to admit that we were doing the best we could with limited knowledge and that we could be proven wrong in the future.

Positively, we should be quick to humbly seek forgiveness when we have been sinfully harsh on social media (Matt. 5:23-24).

Another way to express humility is to be quick to overlook troubling statements by others. “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (Prov. 19:11). Spurgeon, in his “Lectures to My Students,” wrote that those in ministry need one blind eye and one deaf ear.1 Don’t be overly sensitive.

Conclusion

The problems of harmful interactions on social media are not new. Scripture warns against the various forms of sinful speech we see on social media. While it is good to be restrained in what we say, the most important issue is that of our hearts (Prov. 4:23). If we are walking in the Spirit we will not express ourselves in a destructive fleshly way (Gal. 5:16). This is possible because of the redemptive work of Christ which both forgives and transforms us (2 Cor. 5:17).

Questions for Reflection

  1. How have you been hurt by what has been written on social media?
  2. How have you expressed yourself sinfully or unwisely on social media?
  3. Before you post something, are you willing to evaluate your words in light of the fruit of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh?
  4. To what tribes do you belong? Which tribes do you oppose?

1. Expository Notes on the Gospel of Luke, p. 438.
2. Lenski, Interpretation of Saint Luke’s Gospel, p. 1090.
3. The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ, pp. 31-32; cf. Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, p. 584; Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels, Vol. 3, p. 173.
4. See Godet, Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, vol. 2, p. 316.

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