Crises in the Life of Peter

THE Apostle Peter, one of the most colorful and engaging characters in the New Testament, was among the earliest to become a disciple of Jesus after the latter’s return from his forty days of temptation in the wilderness. The account of his introduction to Jesus by his brother Andrew is given in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

To consider all of the experiences of Peter in his association with Jesus during the following three and one-half years would be to trace most of the recorded history of our Lord during that period. For Peter was not only one of the first called, but he also became one of the three special associates of Jesus, sharing that honor and privilege with James and John, who were brothers in the flesh as well as in the spirit.

These three, together with Peter’s brother Andrew (whose homes were evidently at Bethsaida or Capernaum) were fishermen and engaged in business in the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias. (John 6:1; 21:1) It is supposed that these four continued in their fishing business for some months after they became Jesus’ disciples, probably spending a considerable portion of their time with Jesus and more or less associated with his ministry.

It was in connection with their fishing that the first experience we will consider occurred. The account is given in Matthew 4:18-22 and Luke 5:1-11. It is the familiar story of Jesus preaching to the multitude upon the shore of the sea. Desiring a suitable place from which to give his message, he entered into the ship of Simon Peter, which was moved out a little distance from the shore. There “he sat down and taught the people out of the ship.”

When he had finished his discourse to the multitude, Jesus turned to his disciples to give them some special and deeper instruction. When he suggested to Peter that he move out into deep water and let down his net for a draught, Peter replied that they had toiled all night and taken nothing, but nevertheless at Jesus’ word he would let down the net. The result was astonishing; they enclosed so great a multitude of fish that their net broke and they sought the assistance of their partners, James and John. Both ships were filled so full that they began to sink.

This miraculous demonstration of Jesus’ power—together with the simplicity and sweetness of his disposition and his complete devotion to God, coupled with the glorious message of the kingdom to which they had just listened—was too much for Peter. The account tells us that he cast himself down at Jesus’ feet, and made a most surprising request—that Jesus would depart from him, because he (Peter) was a sinful man.

Here was one so conscious of his own imperfections, so impressed with the perfections of the Master, so doubtful of his own ability to measure up to the standards of a disciple of Jesus that he felt unworthy to be associated with him. And here, too, was just the attitude of honesty and humility that it was necessary for Peter—as well as all other disciples—to attain before the Lord could safely and effectively use him in his work.

Jesus could reprove the Pharisee of the parable who thanked God that he was not as other men and had done that which he thought ought to commend him to God. Jesus, a little later on, when these disciples, exercising power conferred upon them by Jesus, had been able to heal the sick and even to cast out demons, could warn them against over-confidence; but now he could also reassure Peter and his associates saying, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.”

How sweet those words must have sounded to impetuous Peter! And how did they affect this disciple who had asked the Lord to depart, and who in his heart no doubt felt a deeper devotion to the Master than ever before and a more earnest longing to be associated with him, although this was completely at variance with the words he had uttered?

Ah! that seems to have been the end of the fishing business for those four disciples, until a time years afterward which we shall discuss later on in our study of the critical experiences of Peter. But now we read that “when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.” Thenceforth it would be no longer part-time association with the Master and his work, but such complete devotion that Peter could say years later (Matt. 19:27), “We have forsaken all, and followed thee.”

Do we find some lessons for ourselves in this incident in the lives of those early disciples? It is not necessary for us to find an exact correspondency, but may there not have been a period in our lives too, when, after becoming the Lord’s disciples we were still divided in our attention to this new vocation? Perhaps we were not fully settling our minds on the things above, but still pursuing to some extent our selfish and spiritually profitless worldly objectives.

We might wonder how, after his introduction to the Lord and acceptance as a follower and being renamed Peter, it was possible for him to continue his fishing business; why he had not, before this miraculous demonstration, felt the Master’s presence and his service to be so marvelous a privilege as already to have “left all and followed him.”

And then, more profitably, we may turn the question upon ourselves, and remember how long it was after we had made a full consecration of our all to the Lord before we really began to understand and put into practice this life of complete devotion that such an agreement calls for. Or, going still further in our introspection, we may ask whether we have even now mastered the lesson that Peter and his companions learned that day in the boat with Jesus, and whether, in our hearts and as fully as possible in our lives, we are really

“All for Jesus, all for Jesus!
   All my being’s ransomed powers;
All my thoughts and words and doings,
   All my days and all my hours.”

Another suggestion which comes through consideration of this introduction to a “full-time” ministry with Jesus is that Peter had to become fully “caught” himself before he could be a successful “fisher of men.” The sharp barbs of truth must first reach his heart, revealing his helplessness and unworthiness; he must become truly “poor in spirit” before he could safely be used; he must really “mourn” before he could be “comforted” himself and, as one of the Lord’s special representatives, share in the work of comforting others.

It is no less true today; and the one who would be used of the Lord must have opened his heart and mind fully to the Lord’s instruction, as Paul indicated in his letter to Timothy, “The husbandman that laboreth must be first partaker of the fruits.” (II Tim. 2:6) Thank God, to those who have responded as did Peter, the same gracious Master offers his fellowship, the same comforting reassurance that he gave to Peter, and the promise that we may share in his ministry both here and in the future.

For the next event under consideration which seems to have been of unusual importance in the life of Peter, we move forward some months, perhaps as much as two years. The account in Matthew 16:13-25 records a conversation between Jesus and his disciples when, in their journeyings, they had reached the extreme limits of Palestine in the north, “the coasts of Caesarea Philippi.” Jesus’ ministry had now been in progress more than two years, and he asked his disciples what the results in those had been: “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?”

Their reply was not encouraging: “Some say thou art John the Baptist; some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the [other] prophets.” How remarkable that the disciples could not mention anyone as having discerned the fact that Jesus was far greater than any of these noted servants of God—that he was none other than the Messiah, the Son of God!

To instill a new idea in the mind of fallen, imperfect man has always been a difficult task. It is well for us to recall the meager results evidenced in this confession of the disciples. Thus we will not be discouraged when our glorious message of the Lord’s second presence and the kingdom at hand seems to fall on heedless ears or excite but a temporary or casual response tempered with incredulity. Rather, let us be encouraged; we are still in the age of faith and “all men have not faith.” We are in the company of the Master and his disciples and are to emulate their loving zeal, obedience, and faithfulness in carrying on the proclamation of truth in the end of the age as they did in its beginning.—II Thess. 3:2

In our narrative Jesus then made his inquiry more personal, asking the disciples whom they recognized him to be. This was the occasion for the great confession of Peter, “Thou art the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.” The commendation Peter received in response to this declaration is familiar to all Bible students and indicates the importance of this great fact which had been revealed to Peter by the Heavenly Father (Matt. 16:17); namely, that Jesus was not merely a perfect man, “the Son of man,” but was the long-promised Messiah, the Son of God. Success had crowned Jesus’ ministry; these disciples were now convinced of his true origin and office; and they were now prepared to witness to these tremendously important facts.

But this insight into the true character of their Master was only part of the instructions he had yet to give in the short time that remained for him to be with them in the flesh. And so we read that “from that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”

Strange to say, this did not meet the idea of Peter as to the course marked out in the Scriptures for the Christ. And, never hesitant to express himself, we read that he went to Jesus and began to rebuke him, saying, “Be it far from thee, Lord [margin, pity thyself]: this shall not be unto thee.”

This was a well-intentioned effort of the devoted Peter to dissuade Jesus from the course which was clearly marked out in the Scriptures. Jesus’ reaction was instantaneous and emphatic. “He turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense [a stumbling-block] unto me: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.”

What a trial those severe words of reproof must have been to Peter; what a test of his humility, his sincerity as a disciple, a “learner”! Only a short time before this he received one of the highest commendations of the New Testament—the assurance that God had revealed the identity of Jesus to him and that he would be especially honored in using the keys of the kingdom of heaven. But now he was personified as Satan, the enemy of God!

We may wonder why Jesus used such strong language, such stern reproof. As we ponder the circumstances and the conversation, we see that Peter’s well-meant remark was in effect the same as Satan’s effort in the wilderness—an effort to dissuade Jesus from his course of loyalty to God’s plans, which definitely involved his surrender of human life as a voluntary sacrifice.

No progress whatever could be made as long as Peter believed Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and at the same time was assured that Jesus could, and should, avoid persecution, suffering, and death. This fundamental error—this conception that to be the Christ, or a follower of Christ, was possible without sacrifice unto death—had to be denied and condemned by the Master in the most positive terms—not only for Peter’s benefit, but for the protection and guidance of his followers ever since.

What was Peter’s reaction to this reproof? It is not given in the record. But the after-life of Peter provides abundant evidence that he humbly accepted the rebuke and absorbed the instruction. When, later, Jesus told them of his impending death and added that it would be by crucifixion, we read that they were “exceedingly sorrowful”; that they were “amazed” as they followed him on the last passover journey to Jerusalem; that “they understood none of these things”—the why and wherefore, no doubt, of Jesus’ determination to go among his enemies.—Mark 10:32; Luke 18:34

We find Peter, on the night of the betrayal, remonstrating with the Lord when the latter said they would all desert him, and assuring him that though he lay down his life for Jesus, yet he would not deny him. And we read, “Likewise also said they all.” (Matt. 26:35; Mark 14:31) How happy we are to see that these dear apostles were learning this great lesson—even though not yet able to put it into practice until “endued with power from on high” through begetting of the Spirit—that they had determined to be faithful and loyal to their Master, even unto death!—Luke 24:49

Two other events on that fateful night were among the more important experiences of Peter: the one in the Garden of Gethsemane; the other in the high priest’s palace, to which Jesus was taken after his arrest. In Luke 22:35-38 we are told of Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples as they left the upper room. Among other things they were to provide themselves with swords, “For,” said he, “I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.” The disciples replied that there were two swords among the company, “And he said unto them, It is enough.”

We pause to consider the remarkable statement of the Lord that he had now reached the climax of his earthly experience and that but one prophecy remained to be fulfilled; namely, that he was to be reckoned among the transgressors. What a glorious testimony of a life of perfect devotion, of faithfulness to every detail of the divine will for him as he had discerned it in the Scriptures! And it was for grace and strength to meet this final test that the Master agonized in prayer that night in Gethsemane.

After his trial there, and the Father’s answer, strengthening him by the ministry of an angelic messenger, the multitude, led by Judas, approached to apprehend Jesus. Peter no doubt had in mind the Lord’s instructions regarding the swords. He now asked, “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?” And, not waiting for a reply, the impetuous disciple “smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear.

But now Peter and his companions were to be given another important lesson of far-reaching significance to them, to all the Lord’s disciples down through the age, and to us in the end of the age. They might have the means to avoid suffering, to resist injustice and persecution, but they were not to use them! And why? Because it was God’s will that they suffer. It was the Father who poured the cup for Jesus that night and gave it to him to drink. Accordingly we read in John’s account of that night, “Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11) Jesus then healed the wound made by Peter’s sword, with the observation, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”—Matt. 26:52

Again we have no record of Peter’s response to the Lord’s reproof. But we have the evidence of his later hearty acceptance of this new idea. After Pentecost, when he and John were arrested, imprisoned, and beaten by order of the Sanhedrin, they “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.” (Acts 5:41) And this is abundantly confirmed in Peter’s epistles. There we read his clear concept of the call to follow the non-resisting Master and to heed the instructions which he gave and exemplified that night in the Garden. Peter’s exhortation to the brethren is to “arm yourselves likewise [not with swords, but] with the same mind!”—I Pet. 2:19-24; 4:1

We now come to what is perhaps the saddest sight in the history of our fallen race: the Son of God, the One fully controlled by, and perfectly manifesting the spirit of God—humility, simplicity, grace, love—on trial before members of the human family whom, as the representative of the Father, he had brought into being. There the representatives of our race, animated by pride, jealousy, and hatred, brought false witness against him and condemned him to death. And those who were guilty of that transcendent wrong were not the ignorant and godless elements of society, but the leaders of the most enlightened group of the chosen nation of Israel!

Peter was there in the high priest’s palace that night. His love for his Master gave him the courage to follow him into the presence of his enemies. And then he was pointed out as a member of Jesus’ company—and, in the very presence of that Master he loved, denied that he even knew him. How remarkable a combination of qualities we find in Peter! Here love and courage had brought him into danger; and now, whatever the reason, he denies with an oath the One whom but a few hours before he had assured that “though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended … Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.”—Matt. 26:33-35

Just then Jesus came into view, under guard of soldiers, and he looked at Peter. Poor Peter, how that look cut him to the heart! It doubtless was the most critical moment in all of his experiences with the Master thus far—the great climax of his life. Would he repent? Or would he, like Judas, make repudiation of his Master final? If we were there, how breathlessly we should have waited to see how Peter would react to that look—no doubt a look full of pity and infinite yearning for his sorely pressed disciple, in danger of being “sifted as wheat” by the Adversary, as Jesus had forewarned the previous evening in the upper room.

As the cock crowed, Peter remembered that Jesus had warned him that “before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” So Peter went out. Thank God he did not go out as Judas did, to hang himself. Thank God that he did not go out to console himself with the thought that he had been under great strain and to make excuses for his denial of the Master. And thank God again that Peter did go out as the record tells us, “and wept bitterly.” (Matt. 26:75) Ah! Peter had passed this great climax successfully! The humbling process had begun, the final preparation for the great exaltation that was soon to take place when the disciples were to be endued with power from on high.

This humbling and self-abasing process was continued a few days or weeks later, when, not yet fully aware of the course they should pursue, Peter and others of the disciples again engaged in the fishing business. Again, as three years before, they toiled all night and caught nothing. Then the kindly stranger on the shore advised them to cast their net on the right side, assuring them that they would find fish there. And again a miraculous draught of fish was taken! Convinced that it was the Lord on the shore, Peter could not wait but cast himself into the sea to swim to him.

And later, after the meal at which their risen Lord was the host, there occurred that intimate conversation with Peter: “Do you really love me, Peter?” thrice repeated. “Thou knowest all things”—“Thou knowest that I love thee!” “Feed my sheep”; “feed my lambs,” Peter. And Peter, you have loved freedom; you have loved to gird yourself and go whither you would; but Peter, when you have become old, “another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” The record of this incident in John 21 tells us that Jesus thus indicated to Peter the manner of his death—by crucifixion, it is supposed—by which he should glorify God. Peter’s devotion was in no wise daunted now. God could now begin to honor him, since the humbling had been accomplished.

Years afterward Peter refers to this conversation at the side of the sea. He says the time is at hand when he must put off his earthly tabernacle, even as the Lord had shown him. But he was ready for that final test. In fact, the account seems to indicate that it weighed little upon him, and his great concern was faithfully to complete his ministry among the Lord’s followers to whom he wrote. He was not negligent in keeping them reminded of the true Gospel and the course which would insure their making their “calling and election sure,” even though they knew the things of which he wrote and were “established in the present truth.”

And beyond that, he felt it meet to continue to stir them up by reminding them of these things “as long as I am in this tabernacle.” Yes, and even beyond his ministry in the flesh, for he writes, “Moreover I will endeavor that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance.”—II Pet., ch. 1

Cephas, or Peter—“a rock”—was the name Jesus gave Simon when he was first brought to him. (John 1:42, margin) How little he seemed to deserve that name in some of the tests the Lord applied! But Jesus saw the true character, the animating principle of reverence for God. He loved Peter, and Peter loved his Master. Jesus could wait for Peter’s development with patience and hope and kindly helpfulness. He views and treats us likewise; and he gives us opportunities likewise to discern the gold in the character of the brethren, patiently to wait, and perchance have a little share in their encouragement as he brings them through the critical experiences of their lives until their characters are freed from all the dross of fallen human nature.

In our Lord’s last message to his church, and especially directed to the members living in the end of the age, he instructs them, saying, “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich.” (Rev. 3:18) Looking back to the testimony of Peter in his epistles and the record in the Acts of the Apostles, we are assured that he followed that advice.

He was, perhaps, an unusually complex and contradictory set of human impulses and dispositions to begin with. But the Lord led him in such a way, overruling his experiences, instructing him through his Word and his providences, that he entirely overcame those conflicting dispositions as far as his heart was concerned; and the new impulses and godlike dispositions were gradually crystallized into a rock-like character—immovable, unchangeable, prepared as a “living stone” for the temple of God.—I Pet. 2:4,5, Diaglott

How glorious to consider Peter’s growth in grace and his final success! And, also, to think of the saints down through the age—not many, in all “a little flock”—who have likewise, through the infinite love and grace of God, “bought” of him the gold of a divine character, “tried in the fire.” As Jesus clearly indicated, the cost of such character is sacrifice, tribulation, death to the flesh and to its desires and ambitions. But the stupendous thought is that it is still possible for us to “purchase” this greatest of all values. May our consideration of these incidents in the life of Peter inspire and encourage us to press on in the same way until we too have made our calling and election sure and have bought our own full quota of the “gold tried in the fire.”

Dawn Bible Students Association
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