Stumbling and Growing in Christ
No one in the gospel narrative, except the Lord Himself, is more prominent nor more fascinating than Simon Peter. He is more readily known for his great failure in denying his Lord than for his strengths. But whatever else he was, like David of old he had a true heart – his one constant. Key to appreciating this intriguing man, and key to his survival and success, are three confessions that establish his faith.
The First Confession (Luke 5:1-11)
Simon first met Jesus when his brother Andrew introduced him to Jesus, and Jesus surnamed him Peter (Jn. 1:35-42). His next encounter came when Jesus borrowed his boat for a pulpit, then called for a fishing expedition. Peter the expert, weary after a fruitless night of fishing, seemed to have his doubts, but he also had a powerful impression of this Man from their first meeting – Andrew believed He was the Messiah. Now he had heard Jesus teach. Inclined to “humor” Him he said, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because You say so, I will let down the nets” (Lk. 5:5 niv). The result: enough fish to shred their nets and sink two boats!
Peter was convicted: this Man who controls the fish must be the Messiah. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (5:8). This confession of his sinfulness and unworthiness in the presence of God’s glorious Son was the moment of Peter’s conversion. Jesus’ response – “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men” (5:10) – made it clear. Only a repentant and forgiven sinner will ever hear the Son of God say, “Don’t be afraid.” Further, the Savior promised him a ministry; no follower of the Messiah is given an unproductive life.
The Second Confession (John 6)
Jesus fed 5,000 people with a boy’s snack – leaving enough over for each apostle to take a large basketful home. (Their call to follow Him carried His implicit promise to provide for them.) Always eager for a free lunch, the crowd sought Jesus out the next day and was rewarded with a lengthy teaching about Jesus Himself, the “Bread from heaven,” the “food that endures to eternal life” (6:32,27). They soon tired of His words and said: “This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?” (6:60). When Jesus responded, “many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him” (6:66), going off to seek a new thrill, one that demanded neither allegiance nor commitment.
Jesus asked whether the twelve would leave too, setting up Peter’s response: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God” (6:68-69). The very words that the insincere, uncommitted “disciples” found offensive were the source of inspiration and nourishment, the main attraction, for the true disciples. Later, Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching you are really My disciples” (8:31). Peter literally would be lost without his Lord. There was no one else. And he clearly established his faith in this Man, as the very Messiah anticipated by Moses and the prophets.
Comparing Matthew 14, we realize that this resounding declaration of Peter’s faith came the day following his unique experience walking on the surface of a turbulent pre-dawn Galilee Sea, buoyed only by Jesus’ word! Such an amazing and unforgettable encounter with Jesus’ identity and power must drive him to total loyalty and devotion.
The Third Confession (Matthew 16:13-20)
Peter’s best-known confession is his response to Jesus’ questions: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say I am?” Peter was growing wonderfully in his faith and his relationship with his Lord and Savior. Here his confession was completely unself-conscious, with no references to his own sinfulness, unworthiness or personal need: “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.”
Jesus’ response was thrilling: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in heaven” (16:17). The Father’s heart is warmed and His attention riveted whenever our attention is concentrated on the Son, the all-absorbing object of His heart and source of His complete satisfaction.
Jesus taught that “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (11:27). Though Jesus doesn’t say, “No one knows the Son except the Father and those to whom the Father chooses to reveal Him,” in effect He is saying that here. As Peter has focused on and grown in his attachment to the Son, the Father has been making direct, personal revelations to him. And He wants to do the same for us as we allow our hearts to be filled with this Person who so fills and thrills His heart.
The First False Step (Matthew 16:21-26)
It should be a warning to us all that Peter tripped up so soon after that glorious experience. When Jesus spoke of His impending betrayal and death, Peter dared to rebuke Him with “Never, Lord!”. Someone noted that Peter contradicted himself: “Never” expressed his own contrary will or opinion, while “Lord” was the language of submission.
Jesus’ response hit like a thunderbolt on a clear day: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (16:23). No doubt Peter was motivated by love for his Lord; what Jesus had just said was unthinkable to him. But it was “the things of men” – self-preservation, a human sentiment. The real shocker was that Jesus identified the voice of Satan as the author of the human sentiment that opposed God’s word and will.
After the devil’s mighty rout when tempting Jesus, Luke 4:13 says the devil “left Him until an opportune time.” Now he seemed to have found his “opportune time” in the well-intentioned reaction of one of Jesus’ own friends. This indefatigable enemy never misses an opportunity to oppose or obstruct or defy God through His own children. So recently commended for insights received by direct revelation from the Father, Peter here acted as a mouthpiece for the enemy! James warns that, “out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be” (Jas. 3:10).
The Next (Matthew 17:1-8)
Peter was one of three apostles specially favored with extra-curricular experiences with Jesus, the most dramatic and unforgettable of which was the Transfiguration. Seeing his Savior glow like the sun in the splendor of His Messianic glory, Peter seemed overcome with emotion and the solemnity of the moment, and he reacted as we often do – by talking, and with a bright idea! Though not attributed to Satan this time, Peter nevertheless gets it wrong again. Was he momentarily more awed by the sight of Moses and Elijah – whom he had never met – than by the presence of the Son of God whom he knew so well? At any rate, his suggestion to build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah was totally out of place.
In Luke 9 we are told that “Peter and his companions were very sleepy” and only saw Jesus’ glory when they “became fully awake.” Peter spoke while still in a fog, and God’s Word tells us that Peter “did not know what he was saying” (Lk. 9:32-32).
It was time for another revelation from the Father, not now in the quiet of Peter’s heart but via a thundering voice from a bright cloud that enveloped them and struck terror into their hearts. Was it the same cloud that led Moses through the Sinai desert, the Shekinah glory, calling their attention back to the only One worthy of their undivided attention? “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (17:5).
Face down on the ground and mortified with fear, they felt Jesus’ tender touch as He said, “Get up … Don’t be afraid” – the same words He spoke to Peter that fateful day on Galilee Sea amidst torn nets and sinking boats. There is no excuse for our foolish blunderings, but our patient Savior is always ready with His loving touch and soothing word. The lesson was underscored powerfully: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (17:8). Jesus stood alone. No man, no matter how illustrious or historically significant, can ever be honored alongside the Son of God. Our perspective is grotesquely distorted until we see “no one except Jesus” (17:8).
And Another (John 13:1-17; Luke 22:31-34)
It was Passover night, betrayal night. Jesus assumed both the host’s duty and the slave’s chore. To Peter it was unthinkable that his Lord should wash his feet. Though he resisted, he quickly changed his mind when Jesus explained things. This clearly showed Peter’s true love and devotion.
But Peter was to be tested further still. Luke tells how Peter brashly asserted his own faithfulness. Jesus had to bluntly tell him what he would really do that very night. It would be Peter’s lowest moment, but his Savior doesn’t leave him unprotected: “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:31).
What can the “accuser of our brothers” do against the almighty intercession of our Advocate (Rev. 12:10; Rom. 8:33-34)?
Jesus prayed that Peter’s “faith may not fail.” Here’s a wonderful lesson for us: Peter’s faith did not fail. He denied knowing Jesus, but he never denied the faith he had so boldly confessed earlier. For all of us, it is much easier to confess brilliantly and correctly when surrounded by friends than when surrounded by enemies. But, either way, our salvation is in our Savior’s blood and His mighty intercession; and genuine faith in Him is always rewarded.
Peter’s pitiful attempt to defend his Lord against an unarmed man (Malchus, the high priest’s servant) was ludicrous in light of Jesus’ quiet demonstration of the awesome power of His identity. They came to the garden looking for “Jesus of Nazareth.” His response, “I am He,” literally knocked His adversaries – armed Roman soldiers and temple guards – to the ground (Jn. 18:4-10).
Soon after this incident, Peter denied knowing Jesus. Such is our incurable human frailty in spiritual warfare. Then Luke, who told of Jesus’ promise of prayerful intercession for Peter, also gave us this poignant moment: “Just as (Peter) was speaking (denying Him), the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him … And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Lk. 22:60-62).
How different from Judas, who betrayed the Lord. He found no place in his heart – into which Satan himself had entered (Lk. 22:3; Jn. 13:27) – for repentance, just as there had been no real place for the Lord. A believer may fail, but he has all the power in the universe working for his restoration. The heart in which Christ has found no place has no recourse nor resource – only ultimate, fatal, eternal desperation (Mt. 28:18; Ps. 37:23-24; Prov. 24:16).
Restoration and Usefulness
When Jesus promised to pray for Peter, He also promised to restore him and renew his ministry: “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:32). Peter’s full restoration is signaled in John 21, where the Lord three times challenges his love, then commissions him to minister to His sheep. The Book of Acts shows us a transformed, fearless Peter, carrying that ministry forward.
Peter’s life is so like our own in so many ways. May we also be like him in his unflagging devotion to and love for his Savior. His mistakes were the result of his own impetuous nature, but his heart always drove him back into the arms of his Lord. The lessons for us are as much from the Lord Jesus’ faithfulness as from Peter’s failings.
By Bill Van Ryn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.