It’s easy for us as readers, two-thousand years removed, with the context of the whole Bible, to see Peter’s errors. However, in reality, his responses are more than understandable. He was often wrong, but he was trying. He did sink when he tried to walk on the water with Jesus, but at least he got out of the boat (Matthew 14:28-33). He did deny Jesus, but at least he went with him to be questioned along with only one other disciple (John 18). Peter was full of zeal for God and desire to please Jesus. Even though he often missed it, Jesus corrected him in love. We never see Jesus question if He made the right decision when He called Peter, and that should be encouraging to us all!
One of the points that Peter is famous for getting right prior to the resurrection is his confession of Jesus’ identity. Matthew 16:15-20 says,
[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
For all of his faults, Peter had a revelation of Jesus identity. What’s so interesting though, is that this was not enough.
Throughout the gospels, we see people dismissed Jesus time and time again, because they didn’t recognize Him for who He was. Acts 13:17 says,
“For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.”
Peter, however, did recognize who Jesus was. John 6 expresses this perfectly. Jesus had just finished teaching a message that not only offended the religious leaders of the day but many of His own disciples. John 6:66-69 says,
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So, Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
What a powerful response!
We could spend so much time on just this passage of scripture. Jesus didn’t chase His disciples down and try to make them stay or change His message to be more palatable to the masses. Instead, He turned to the twelve that were left and said, “Are you all leaving, too?” He wasn’t concerned with making people receive the truth He delivered.
However, when Peter powerfully declared, “You are the Holy One of God. Where else would we go?” Jesus doesn’t praise him. In fact, He replied, rather shockingly,
‘“Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” [Jesus] spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.’ (John 6:70-71)
See, Jesus wasn’t impressed that Peter recognized He was the Holy One of God. In fact, this exact same verbiage was used by a demon and recorded by Luke:
“In the synagogue, there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm.”
It's not enough just to recognize Jesus, although it’s fundamental. James said it this way:
“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” (James 2:19-20)
It was good that Peter knew who Jesus was, but it wasn’t enough!
Before Jesus crucifixion, Peter went so far as to tell Jesus that he was willing to follow Him in death. This conversation is recorded in all four gospels, but I particularly like the way that John depicts it, in light of what I want to share. John 13:36-38 says,
‘Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.
With the context of the other three gospels, we understand that when Peter said, “I will follow you,” he meant he follow Jesus in death. He was so zealous that he said, “Even if I have to die, I won’t leave you.” He recognized who Jesus was and, in his head, he had committed to Jesus fully. He could say adamantly that he would follow Jesus anywhere. We know from the story, though, that he had not fully surrendered.
Most of us wouldn’t even make such a declaration. Especially in our western context, I would argue that we can’t even imagine a reality in which we’d have to follow Jesus in death. Jesus said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:23-24).
While this scripture does have spiritual applications, it would become a literal reality for many of those who listened to Jesus teach this and it’s a reality for many Christians in the world, today. Believers have given and are giving their very lives to follow Jesus and some of us struggle to give Him two hours of our week.
In Peter’s story, most of us know that after making the bold declaration that he would follow Jesus in death, he denied even knowing Him three times to a servant girl, while Jesus was being questioned by the high priest. Matthew 26:75 then tells us,
‘Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.’
Peter recognized who Jesus was and acknowledged Him as Lord. He had mentally committed to Jesus and verbally promised to follow Jesus, even to death, but when it came down to it, he hadn’t fully denied himself. Peter had to face the realization that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do. Peter wanted to follow Jesus, but in his flesh, he failed.
For the sake of time, we have to skip to the portion of scripture in which Jesus famously commissions Peter before His ascension. John tells us that after His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples after they had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus made them breakfast on the beach and then asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” John 21:18-19 says,
‘“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
I had never realized before that this seems to be a continuation of the conversation they had before Jesus went to the cross, when Peter promised to follow Jesus in death. Look again at John 13:36-38:
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Then in the final recorded conversation between them, Jesus entrusted Peter with His flock and said, “follow me,” foretelling Peter’s death. Peter would eventually give his life for the Gospel and follow Jesus in death on a cross.
It's a somber truth, but Peter’s story is a picture of the call of every believer. God doesn’t desire any of us to be martyred, but I believe we do a disservice to the gospel to deny the reality that believers across the world and throughout history have had to choose to lay down their lives for Him.
It isn’t enough to recognize that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Even the demons know who He is! It isn’t enough to zealously declare that we love Him on Sundays if we’re ashamed of Him in our daily lives. The Gospel calls us to give ourselves fully to Him. Then and only then will He entrust us with the things that He has for us—the things that matter to Him. He has plans, dreams, and purposes for us all. He has good things waiting for us, but there is a cost and it’s us. He wants our all and Peter is such a beautiful, imperfect example of this truth. He’s a picture of the process. We may not always get it right, but He will correct us and guide us in truth until we’re refined in His own image.
Do we love Him?
There’s a cost, but it’s worth it. He is the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. The Gospel will cost us everything but there is nothing worth more!
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30)
Most excellent message. I have always been a bit perplexed with the explanation of Peter's mishaps in order to try & encourage others in their failures. You absolutely nailed it. Personally I believe that your thoughts are right on with the life of Peter.