Simon Peter – The Apostle Who Petered Out.
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Clarence McCartney describes a supposed dream, he had. He writes,
“In my dream I came to the celestial city where all was glorious and fair. At first, however, I did not know where to go or with what group to participate, for throughout the area groups of people could be seen. One of the angels, seeing my hesitation approached me. He asked me if he could conduct me to one of the gatherings. I told him that I did not know which group to join.
I pointed to a sizeable group close to the tree of life. “Those,” the angel said, “are gathered around Paul. He is leading a discussion of great theological themes such as Predestination and free will.” I told the angel that I loved Paul, but I might feel not altogether at home in such a group of great minds.
I pointed to another group near the Crystal Sea. He said, “Those are the ones who like to listen to John, the Beloved Disciple. He is discussing the magnitude of the love of God.” I started to head in that direction, then halted. I had always sensed the feebleness of love in my life, and perhaps this group would do me good, but then I hesitated. I wasn’t sure whether I would end up feeling more guilty than helped. I was still unsure where I would fit the best.
Then the angel said, “Perhaps you would like to join the group that is the largest.” He pointed to a great throng of people gathered by the western wall of the city. It was a company that no one could number. “That is the company that Peter is chatting with.”
And Clarence McCartney said, “in my dream, when I heard that, my heart leapt within me. I knew that I would feel at home there.” He goes on to say, that of all the Apostles Peter seemed to be the most human, the most like ourselves. And perhaps he was right! There is something about Peter that reminds us all of ourselves.
So what were the elements in Peter’s character that will help us understand him better, and ourselves better too?
The Magnificent Apostle
There is no doubt that Peter became a magnificent apostle. Perhaps the shape of the Christian church owes more to Peter than to any other man. Jesus assigns to Peter a unique role of leadership within the early church. And before the story is done Peter has opened the door to the Kingdom of God for thousands and then hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gentiles. From his first sermon alone 3,000 responded to the invitation. And that was just the beginning. He gave leadership to the church in Jerusalem during its founding years, and then passed on its leadership to others so that he could travel the world of his day planting and strengthening the church.
The Inconsistent Apostle
Peter was a magnificent man. But it was not always so. There were some aspects of Peter’s life that he had to overcome before he was able to serve God well.
One of the chief earmarks of Peter is his incredible inconsistency. He is a double-minded man in a multitude of ways.
- One moment he has faith to walk on the water, a minute later he has lost it all and is drowning.
- One minute Jesus is praising him, “You are a Rock!” then 2 minutes later he is saying to him,” Get behind me Satan!”
- One moment Peter is boasting, “Everyone else will forsake you, but not I.” And then later that same evening he too is fleeing for his life.
Peter is consistently inconsistent. It is interesting. His given name is Simon, son of Zebedee. Jesus renames him. He gives him the name Petros. Peter. It is the word for ROCK. His nickname is Rocky. But in reality Peter is as unstable as sand. But I think Clarence McCartney was right. Peter is not alone. Many of us share his vices and his virtues. One day we resolve to be stronger and better – that’s a virtue, and the next day our resolution has slipped away down the drain – that’s our vice. We find ourselves vacillating between faith and doubt, love and selfishness, wisdom and folly.
Like Peter, we are double-minded people with divided affections. But if there is hope for Peter, perhaps there is hope for us too.
An Impulsive Man
Peter is not only an inconsistent man, however. He is also an impulsive man. He is a man who leaps before he looks. Always up front. Always first to speak. There is no shrinking violet about Simon called Peter.
On the day he meets Jesus we see it clearly. He and his friends have been fishing all night. They have caught nothing. Jesus instructs them to cast their nets over the other side of the ship. The catch is enormous. And when Peter sees this catch, immediately he falls down at the feet of Jesus and exclaims, “Go away from me Lord. For I am a sinful man.”
What does fish have to do with sins? But impetuous Peter makes that leap of logic. Maybe Peter had had a really tough night of it. Fishing all night and catching nothing must have pushed the patience of this impatient man past all limits. He may have spent the night ranting and raving, and cursing and growling. He may have felt like a man out of control. But when he encounters Jesus, Peter may have sensed the difference between himself and this man, and repents as fast as he sins.
On the night of the betrayal Peter had said, “I will not flee.” That’s courage! But soon he is running for his life. That’s cowardice! Soon he is returning to the very place where Jesus was undergoing a trial. That’s courage! But when three people asked him about Jesus, he denies knowing him. That’s cowardice! Then suddenly a cock crows. Once more leaping before he looks, he blows his cover and goes running out into the night once more, hot tears scalding his face.
Earlier that very evening this same pattern had been demonstrated. During the foot washing, all the others had been compliant. They let Jesus wash their feet. They are silent with embarrassment. But when it is Peter’s turn he says indignantly, “You will never wash my feet!” Impetuous and over reactive! But a few moments later when Jesus says, “It is necessary,” Then Peter blurts out, “not just my feet, but my hands and my head.”
On the mountain of transfiguration when Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah, when it is over the other two disciples are stunned. So is Peter but he doesn’t know it. He wants to build three shrines there on the mountain. The writer of the gospel says “Peter didn’t know what he was saying, he was so frightened.”
Simon was driven by the need to say or do something. Sometimes his rashness brought about wonderful results. Other times it did no harm. But there were times when his impetuosity caused him to shoot himself in the foot and do damage to himself. At the trial of Jesus, he shot himself in the heart and it would take many tears and years before he fully recovered. There were times he wounded others and that may have taken longer to heal.
McCartney may be right, by the way, Peter is not that different from many of us. We do not intend harm to ourselves or to others. Much of human evil is simply blundering in the dark. Stepping on toes that we never saw, saying words that were not wise and caused hurt. Much of human evil is not insidious in its intent. There are no dark and devious motives behind much of the hurt we cause. Sometimes we are simply thrashing around as drowning persons, causing chaos in the lives of others. Peter was not intentionally stupid. He did not plan the denial. He did not purpose to be prejudiced. He did not plan to darken the air with his curses. He was, like we are, weak people who find ourselves less in charge of our own lives than we think.
But, if there is hope for Peter, then there is hope for us.
The Workings of Grace
There is much about Peter that raises a question – how useful can such a man be to the Kingdom of God? His blunderings appear to outweigh his virtues. Perhaps so.
But Jesus is not looking for people already formed. He is not borrowing pre-formed leaders from some other organization. First of all, Jesus chooses from the people who have chosen to follow him. There were many who were not attracted to him. His words did not sound the tuning fork of hunger and desire in their lives. But there were those that did find in his words something that drew them to him and to God. And from those who leaned in his direction Jesus chose 12 to be with him – to learn from him about God and themselves. In these twelve men he saw promise and potential. And in Peter the impetuous and inconsistent man, he saw a man, who when seasoned by grace, would be able to be the leader of the early church. But Jesus was aware that Peter would need to be transformed before he could help transform the world.
On the night of the betrayal Jesus knows that Simon Peter is near the edge. Simon’s faith hangs by a thread, although the overly-self-confident Peter does not know it. Jesus, out of the blue, says “Simon, Simon, Listen! Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not, and you, when you have returned, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31) Peter doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about. But later those words might serve as anchors for a man adrift.
A few hours later, it happens. Peter is by the fire in the temple area. And there he does the unthinkable. He denies any knowledge of his friend. He protects himself at any cost. But when he hears the cock crow he realizes the enormity of his sin. He races into the night, a devastated man.
Can you imagine the weight that settled on Peter? Three days later the Resurrection has taken place, but not inside Peter. Jesus has come back from the dead, but Peter hasn’t. The Gospel of John, however, tells us the story of Peter’s return.
Peter has gone fishing. He has returned to his old life. His old profession. He knows that he has forfeited trust. Jesus may have forgiven him, but he doubts whether Jesus will be able to trust a man who crumbled so easily.
Then it happens again. They fish all night. They catch nothing. And once again there is a stranger on the beach who says “throw your net on the other side.” They do so. And there it is again. A miraculous catch of fish. Then the penny drops. “It is the Lord” someone shouts. And Simon Peter, though overwhelmed by his guilt and his grief, jumps into the surf and heads for the figure on the beach.
And the next moments are among the most important moments of Peter’s life. For there on the beach Jesus and Peter have a conversation that gathers the shattered pieces of Peter’s life and glues them back together to create a rock of a man upon whom Jesus could begin to build his church. Peter emerges from the pain of his own sin, through the restoration of Jesus, to become the kind of person that God can use.
There was hope for Peter. There is hope for us too.
Do you remember that early day in Peter’s life when he was fishing and had caught nothing? When the fish had been hauled in, Peter fell at the feet of Jesus, confessing himself to be a sinful man. That was the beginning of a new life for Peter. It was his conversion to the cause of Christ.
But then Peter had petered out. Faith has slipped away. Loyalty to Christ had been eroded. Self-preservation had become more important than commitment to Christ and His church. Peter was in need of restoration that would bring him back into fellowship and that would bring renewed healing to his heart.
Some of us are in need of a similar restoration. As the years go by, we too become double minded. Our loyalty slips. Our faith functions at low ebb. We find ourselves consumed by doubt. We are not far from “Petering” out altogether. Our spiritual life also hangs by a mere thread.
But here is the good news of the Gospel. God never gives up on us either! Jesus continues to invite us to a conversation with him where he can strengthen us by his Spirit so that we can find healing of the heart and usefulness once more.