Peter tends to get a bad rap when it comes time to talk about the disciples. He spends the majority of the gospel accounts sticking his foot in his mouth, to the point where it becomes easier to see him as one of the Three Stooges than the twelve disciples. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written as sitcoms, the most repeated line would probably be, “Oh, Peter!” followed by the laugh track.
But Christ didn’t call Peter as a disciple because He wanted comic relief. On the contrary, Christ saw in Peter the potential to serve as the chief apostle to Israel (Galatians 2:8). We know through the Bible record that after Peter received the Holy Spirit, he made leaps and bounds of progress—but what about before that? Was Peter just some bumbling klutz who could barely string two sentences together without messing something up?
Let’s take a look at three of the most popular stories in Peter’s life and see if, buried behind some glaring mistakes, there might be some character traits worth emulating.
1. Walking (and then sinking) on water
The Story: If you’ve heard about Peter, it’s almost a sure bet that you’ve heard about his infamous attempt to cross the waves on foot. Here’s a quick recap of the story as recorded in Matthew 14:22-33: It’s the dead of night. The disciples are on a boat in the middle of the sea, and the waves are using their vessel for a game of hacky sack. In the middle of trying to keep from capsizing, they spot what they think is a ghost walking toward them across the raging sea, which is always a little disconcerting when you’re trying to keep from being dead.
Well, the “ghost” calls out to the disciples, and it turns out it’s actually Jesus. Peter, by way of confirmation, asks to walk out on the water to Him, and Christ allows it. Unfortunately, the crashing waves and general surreality of the situation get to Peter, and he loses faith andstarts to sink. Jesus reaches out to save him, asking, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
What We Can Miss: Nine times out of ten, if you’re hearing this story in a message, the point is about trusting in God. And rightly so—Christ makes that point Himself when He asks Peter why he doubted. It makes it easy to gloss over an important question, though: Where were the rest of the disciples?
That’s right. Still in the boat. When Christ identified Himself, it was Peter who responded. And notice his choice of words—given the chance to ask Jesus for proof of His Messiahship, ninety-nine percent of rational-thinking people would have said, “Lord, if it is You, command these waves to cease.” But what does Peter ask? “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Peter’s first thought isn’t, “Make it stop!” but, “Awesome! Can I come out too?”
There wasn’t a doubt in Peter’s mind that if this was indeed the Lord of creation, walking across the water in the middle of violent, crashing waves would be child’s play. He got scared once he found himself in the middle of those waves, sure. I would have too. His faith was still maturing, but the Bible doesn’t record one ounce of hesitation in Peter to take that first step. Christ called, Peter answered.
2. Chopping off ears
The Story: As recorded in John 18:1-11: Judas Iscariot has betrayed Jesus, leading a mob of troops, chief priests and Pharisees to arrest Him in the garden of Gethsemane. The eleven other disciples, having come with Christ after the Passover meal, watch on as a dialogue ensues between Jesus and His soon-to-be captors.
Without hesitation, Christ comes forward and reveals Himself to the mob as Jesus of Nazareth, “knowing all things that would come upon Him” (John 18:4). In order to protect the eleven disciples, He adds, “Therefore, if you seek Me, let these go their way” (John 18:8). Christ had given the disciples a chance to make their exit and step out of harm’s way, which Peter instead takes as a window of opportunity to hack an ear right off of the servant of the high priest. Jesus responds, “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (John 18:11), and a parallel account records that He miraculously reattached the ear to its owner (Luke 22:51).
What We Can Miss: On many, many different occasions, Jesus had explained to the disciples—plainly and in parable—that He had come to die as a sacrifice for sin. And on many, many different occasions, that truth had gone cleanly over their heads. And so when the Messiah, the Lion of Judah, is threatened by a mob, the first question the disciples ask is, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22:49).
Peter wasn’t even waiting for a response. The life of his Lord and Master was at stake, and he was ready to fight. What he didn’t realize was that he was literally taking up arms against the very plan of God, which makes it easy to overlook Peter’s zeal. Judas had brought with him a detachment (John 18:3) of troops, which could have included up to 600 soldiers, not even counting the Pharisees and temple officials that were with them. Eleven disciples against 600 soldiers would mean that every disciple would have to kill about 55 trained military men to get out of there alive.
Facing those kind of odds, most people would throw in the towel and call it a day; Peter didn’t even bat an eye before he started hacking away. Though his zeal was spectacularly misplaced, Peter was willing to take on impossible odds for the sake of defending his Lord.
3. Returning to the fishing hole
The Story: As recorded in John 21:1-19: The resurrected Christ had briefly appeared at least once to all of the eleven disciples, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that He is the Son of God, that He was sent by God and has returned to God, and that He has paved the way to receiving eternal life for all God’s people.
Then Peter goes fishing.
He and six other disciples, unsure of Christ’s whereabouts, head out on the Sea of Tiberius and catch nothing—that is, until the next morning, when a stranger on the shore tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, at which point they struggle to drag in 153 wriggling fish. John realizes that the stranger is Christ, and Peter dives into the water and goes to meet Him. The disciples share breakfast with Jesus, and Jesus tells Peter to take care of His sheep.
What We Might Miss: Peter went fishing? After everything he and the disciples had witnessed and been a part of, what on earth were they doing fishing?
Rewind to three and a half years ago, when Christ was preaching to the multitudes in the boat of a fisherman. After He finished teaching, He told that fisherman to “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). The fisherman mentions that he hasn’t caught anything all night, but follows Christ’s directions and receives a catch so heavy it nearly broke his net.
Sound familiar? That fisherman was Simon Peter, and that was the moment that Christ called him, James and John to be disciples. So now, three and a half years later, Peter and the other disciples are waiting on instructions from Christ—and where does Peter go? Back to the very moment when Christ first called him. Is it possible that Peter wasn’t wasting time, but in fact seeking out Christ? The fact that Jesus proceeds to recreate the same miracle from three and a half years ago seems to suggest so.
Lessons for us
Jesus Christ chose His disciples with perfect understanding of their character and what they had the potential to become. Peter wasn’t chosen because he was brash, foolhardy, or shiftless. On the contrary; Jesus knew that Peter had capacity for great faith, zeal, and perseverance. When Peter walks on water, we see his growing faith in his Creator. When he attacks the mob come to arrest Jesus, we see a fiery zeal still learning what makes for an appropriate target. And when he returns to go fishing, we see his perseverance in seeking the will of God in his life.
Peter was chosen for a reason. So were you. And like Peter, you and I are still learning to trust God when we’re walking among some of the rockier waves. We’re still learning exactly how to put our zeal for His work to use. And we’re still learning to seek the will of our Creator with perseverance. We’re going to make mistakes along the way, and we’re probably going to spend a good deal of time with our feet in our mouths—but, also like with Peter, God can help us to overcome our shortcomings while strengthening our better qualities. So I think it’s only fitting that Peter himself closes out this Sabbath Thought:
“But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.
Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-11).
Until next time,